Words of Death

joseyOne of the cinema’s most powerful scenes occurs in a film many might disregard due to its genre. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a man trying to rebuild his war-shattered life, rides out to face a Comanche chieftain.

Josey: You be Ten Bears?

Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.

Josey: I’m Josey Wales.

Ten Bears: I have heard. You’re the Gray Rider. You would not make peace with the Blue Coats. You may go in peace.

Josey: I reckon not. Got nowhere to go.

Ten Bears: Then you will die.

Josey: I came here to die with you. Or, live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true. The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.

Ten Bears: And your word of death?

Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles . . . I’m here for either one.

Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.

Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.

Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues. There is iron in your word of death for all Comanche to see. And so there is iron in your word of life. No signed paper can hold the iron, it must come from men. The word of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life . . . or death. It shall be life.

This conversation has always caused me to stop and think—even as I typed it out now. It contains many profound thoughts about honesty, commitment, respect and even peace. Most captivating to my thoughts, though, is the contrast between words of death and words of life.

“There is iron in your word of death . . . And so, there is iron in your word of life.”

People say all sorts of things, often without much regard as to whether or not they are true. They often speak without thinking about the words before they leave their lips. Most daily conversation is superficial, and immediately forgotten.

That changes, when we speak of death. Sure, comedians joke about it, but when people discuss actual death—often in the wake of someone’s passing—our words become more measured, our tempo slows, and we more consciously ponder what we are saying.

I recall a conversation with a fellow chaplain who described his father’s dying. He contracted a terminal disease, which would take some time to extinguish his life, and he told his children: “As you have grown up, I’ve done my best to teach you how to live. Now I will do my best to teach you how to die.”

It doesn’t require faith in God to die with dignity, but those of us who know the resurrected Jesus, face death with a confidence that death does not have the final word.

The truly wise live all of their days in the knowledge that we all will someday (barring the parousia) experience physical death. In light of that, our words should not be careless, or even frivolous. That’s true for our life words, as well as our death words.

By this I do not mean that we should not play with language or engage in humor. After all, humor is inarguably one of God’s most precious gifts to us. Nor should we allow the cloud of death that hangs over all mortal flesh rob us of the many joys life brings.

C.S. Lewis would have understood the essence of the conversation quoted above. (The movie was made thirteen years after his own death.) When grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. (A Grief Observed).

What I am trying to capture is more than simply the notion that our words of life, our day to day conversations, should be just as sincere and thoughtful as our words of death. It’s more in line with what Lewis was referring to. That our words, thoughts, and hopes have been tested and proven true . . . because they are based not on the fancy of the moment, but on the final, concluding whole of the testimony of our lives.

In other words, it is precisely because one’s word of death (ultimate, naked honesty) is true, that you can trust their word of life.

That’s a message that echoes both the sound of a hammer driving nails on a Judean hill, and a heavy stone rolling away from the entrance to a sealed tomb, two days later.

25 thoughts on “Words of Death

  1. JJFlanagan

    Interesting insights and a very thoughtful commentary indeed. Sometimes there are spoken words in a movie which can grab you for their honesty. For example, I was watching the movie “Death on the Nile,” and the character, Inspector Hercule Poiret, (played by Peter Ustinov), said to a suspected murderess, (played by Mia Farrow), ” Do not let evil into your heart. It will make a home there.”
    In my view, spoken words can be used and abused. Words can be used to make a point, mask deception, manipulate others, and express honest feelings. We are probably all guilty of using words at one time or another in honest, as well as dishonest ways, to flatter, to be ambiguous, to hide truth, to reveal truth. As it has been said many times in the old days, “a man’s word is who he is.” As Christians, we should all remembering that God is watching and expects more honesty fromHis children then He will see in the wicked or those who despise truth.

  2. I know it is not precisely your topic, but…

    I am always interested in movie depictions of Native Americans. They tend to be impossibly silly or impossibly noble. This scene stands out because it is neither.

    I think the writing in this particular scene is pretty good. It sounds real…like it could have happened. There were some actual conversations and situations involving Native Americans that were close to this scene.

    For instance, a man named Thomas Jeffords rode into Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains to talk to the Apache chief, Cochise. Jeffords wanted the Chiricahua to stop killing riders working for the Southern Overland Mail. Jeffords made no attempt at stealth. He just rode up into the mountains and straight to Cochise’ camp. The Apache war leader was so impressed he agreed to Jeffords’ request.

    One detail in the Josey Wales scene leaps out at me. The Comanche chief would have been less concerned about the “blue coats” and more concerned if Wales were a “Texan.” The Comanche distinguished between Texans and other Americans. They considered the Texans their ancestral enemies.

    A similar scene took place between Cheyenne chiefs and George Custer. Custer travelled to a Cheyenne camp accompanied by only a small guard. He rode back and forth to signal he wanted to talk. During the resulting conversation, the Cheyenne engaged in a number of small insults and curses, all of which Custer either did not notice or chose to ignore. The Cheyenne told Custer they could kill him. Custer told them they could submit to the government or die. The Southern Cheyenne chose to submit – at least for the moment.

    During the conversation, a Cheyenne medicine man told Custer a prophecy. He said that if Custer ever rode to battle against the Cheyenne again, he would die. Custer ignored him.

  3. “As you have grown up, I’ve done my best to teach you how to live. Now I will do my best to teach you how to die.”

    That’s very profound! The last important lesson a parent can teach. It’s something to remember as we grow older and to see that even in suffering and dying, there is something we can do for our children.

  4. Every moment, every word, every action counts. How each of those is used – for what purpose – depends on the individual.
    People can make fun of the western genre, but some basic human truths were mixed in with the goofy stuff. Then we were more of an agricultural country and many were closer to the land.
    (Can’t stop thinking about the Nevada standoff. Some double tongued talk/chiefs involved with all that. Praying better judgement and truth prevails.)

  5. Pingback: Dating Like an Inkling « Mere Inkling

  6. Mujahid Abdul-Aziz

    I have pondered these words over, and over, trying to understand the full message of what the meaning each of the men were trying to impart, and when fully understood, it becomes an icon, and doesn’t matter what your race, or religious beliefs are.

  7. A truly thoughtful post. Reminds me of Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And they said that with their backs against the wall, too. That’s when you know you mean it, just as you said. Many thanks for this one.

  8. Eric Smith

    Thank you for this post. I have been attracted to the movie for years and appreciate the way you have put words to some of my feelings. It is profound and I will use parts of it tomorrow while giving my testimony in a Bible Study. Thx, again. Eric

    1. Eric, I’m so glad you stumbled onto this post. And I’m delighted you found parts of it inspiring enough to share with others. May our Lord richly bless you tomorrow as you witness to your faith in Christ tomorrow.

      1. Thank you. It went well, I think. Many thanked for the meaningful integration into my testimony of the video clip (I was going to read it but used a YouTube clip instead…good thing too for when I previewed it with my wife before I left, I sobbed like a baby as we watched it together. Your comments about it were so true and I’m still trying to plumb the depths of why…. Blessings to you, In Christ,

      2. Thanks for the follow-up. Glad to hear it went well… and that the preview allowed you to experience its emotional impact with making you self-conscious when you shared.

  9. Rob Baggett

    This morning, I was reading Deuteronomy 30 and was reminded of this scene. Perhaps it resonates so strongly because the dialogue is almost Biblical. “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” Verse 15. It’s tragic that we all don’t answer as Ten Bears: “It shall be life.”

    1. That’s a good observation. It’s always struck me as echoing biblical concepts. The choice between life and death is played out daily… despite the fact that those who do not have “eyes to see,” remain blind to it.

  10. Mike Saldaña

    This scene reminds me that there are junctures in our lives where one decides if one is all in or choose to fold. The decision will change the trajectory your life forever. In most lives this may occur only once or twice, at the most three times. There is no guarantee your decision will be the right one. Josey Wales had an equal or greater chance of dying that day as he did of living. Life, at the end of the day, is a game of chance.

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